They were members of the city’s press corps, and Mr. Liu treated them to a rolling, week-long, five-borough press conference—a dialogue that read as if it could be snatched from a piece of absurdist opera, key words and phrases thrown together and repeated ad nauseam. Mr. Liu himself starred as the antihero, trying to keep his timbre steady as he falls deeper and deeper into the abyss.
Scene: A Lunar New Year Celebration at a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown. Mr. Liu onstage “feeding” two Chinese dragons a piece of felt bait suspended from a pole while a three-piece percussion orchestra bangs out a song next to him. On his way out the door …
Press: Mr. Comptroller, have you been interviewed at all by the feds?
Mr. Liu: This was a wonderful event.
Press: Is there anything you feel like you have done wrong regarding your campaign fund-raising?
Mr. Liu: I feel very privileged to be in a position to serve New Yorkers and will continue to do so.
Press: Are you concerned that some members of your staff will be implicated in this growing fund-raising scandal?
Mr. Liu: I feel very privileged to serve. Thank you for coming here. This was a wonderful event.
It was a scene played out with only slight variation all around the city, like a traveling road show or a pop-up piece of performance art, the protagonist surrounded by his chorus.
The reason for the spike in interest around Mr. Liu stems, of course, from the sudden indictment last week of his 25-year-old campaign treasurer, Jia “Jenny” Hou, for participating in a scheme to circumvent the city’s strict campaign finance laws. According to the indictment, Ms. Hou helped arrange for donors to get around the legal limit of individual contributions to a campaign by setting up “straw donors”—i.e., bogus contributors whose names and identities were borrowed just for that purpose.
However, it seems unlikely that Ms. Hou, who faces 60 years in federal prison, was the architect of the alleged campaign finance improprieties—and none of the dozen or so elected officials, lobbyists, staffers, advocates and consultants whom The Observer spoke with over the past week could plausibly paint a scenario whereby the scheme begins and ends with her. After all, she is a lightly-paid 25-year-old surrounded by two veteran political operatives with a history of shady campaign dealings, Chung Seto and Mei-Hua Ru.
“They are his whole operation. He works 23 hours a day with them. They are like one big family,” said one politico close to Mr. Liu. “Mei-Hua and Chung are big texters and big emailers and I bet [U.S. Attorney] Preet Bharara is going through that stuff already. They really want John, and if they get to the other two, that will be it.”
While Mr. Liu is a trooper, with a history of weathering adverse political circumstances, it remains to be seen how far up this current scandal will go.
In his decade on the political scene, Mr. Liu has exuded self-confidence, even more than most politicians. “John really believes he is a man of destiny,” one of his political rivals told The Observer. However, at a press conference on the day Ms. Hou was arrested he looked thinner, his voice shaky. With George Arzt, a longtime Democratic campaign consultant and master of damage control by his side, Mr. Liu professed himself shocked by the allegations against his campaign and pledged to move forward.